I have a wonderful time in Waltham Abbey; my intuition was spot on. It is 2 in the afternoon when I finally manage to drag myself away and back onto the tow path headed for Hertford.
I go to the tourist information and have a lovely time chatting history with Pauline Wilkins, who knows all kind of things about her town. Its slightly incongruous modern buildings rubbing shoulders with the old in an obviously ancient place are explained when she tells me Waltham was bombed heavily in the Second World War. Waltham Abbey has a bit of a history of its buildings being desecrated; in the dissolution of the monasteries its beautiful abbey, with the longest nave in England, was pulled down, leaving only the public church area at the front, on petition from the local people.
The abbey still manages to command the town in spite of its diminished size. Its square tower was only tacked on at the front in the 19th century, to prevent the church from falling down after a previous rector had tried to make structural alterations to make the interior appear more gothic. In spite of repeated re buildings of this ancient church it is still magnificent, inside and out. I get the full story from the verger, Ian Eaton, who is both knowledgeable and proud of his abbey.
I seek him out when I cannot find any more information about the amazing 19th century ceiling painting. Unexpectedly, it depicts the 12 signs of the zodiac plus the god two faced Janus, looking to both past and future (the old man looking at an open book and the younger face looking at a still closed book) surrounded by symbols of the earth, air, water and fire. It is an unexpected find in an abbey, and caused some furore in its time, but was accepted eventually as a depiction of the changing seasons, each constellation representing its month. I especially like seeing my birth sign, Capricorn, shown in its original form; the goat with the fish’s tail.
The really thrilling thing about the painting, by Sir Edward J Poynter in 1860, though is the 16 labours that are shown against the months; these show the traditional tasks appropriate to the season and include sowing seeds, picking grapes, brewing, chopping logs, playing the pipes, & sitting by the fire. I love how the moments of relaxation are given equal import as the tasks needed to make them happen. Methinks there are lessons for us here. I ask for a complete list, it is hard for us to make them all out staring up at the ceiling, and Ian promises to dig out the information from earlier parish records; we look at March 1912 where the months of the years are set out in a table next to the signs of the zodiac, but no mention is made then of the tasks; perhaps they were too obvious to be pointed out back then, 100 years past.
The work was inspired by the ceiling of Peterborough Cathedral, I find myself hoping my walk will take me there too. The name of the painting: The Economy of the World.
There is so much information about this historic place that books could and have been written; Harold depicted with of the arrow in his eye on the Bayeaux tapestry is buried here. He rose to fame as king of England after being cured of paralasis here at the abbey and thereafter devoted many riches to maintaining the place. Eleanor of Castille (L’enfant de Castille), whose name is forever immortalised in the Elephant & Castle (sad enough that it was badly understood by the English struggling with their French and is best remembered as a pub name, but it is also a large roundabout carrying huge volumes of traffic in London) and beloved wife of Edward I who died in Nottinghamshire and whose body was taken to London over various days, resting one on Waltham.
What is perhaps more interesting for this journey however, is what I learn from Pauline about the town in more recent years. Before the war it was full of slaughter houses and butchers for the cattle that came in from the nearby Epping Forest, and it also had gunpowder mills, and milled its own flour in the mill adjoining the abbey; the wheels and cogs that enabled it to be water powered can still be seen in the river. Many local people have researched its history and some wonderful publications exist www.essex100.com is the website of one fascinating book telling Essex history in poetry.
The town once boasted the most inns per square miles in the country; going back to the time when the main trade, before the dissolution, was pilgrims coming to town to see the miraculous cross that was once carried from the SW of the land to found an abbey in what was Waltham Forest at the time.
I learn that the New Inn, the shabby place where I spent the night, and about to be closed for refurbishments, is the second inn to be built on the site, in 1893, was once “superb for cyclists” according to the local guide Reflections – Pubs and Inns where special rates for cyclists’ meals were offered! Now there’s a thought for transition times.
I am so full of information and stories and excitement that I really do not want to leave, but i know I won’t make Hertford before dark if I don’t. I walk past a newsagent on the road about and discover that Nick Clegg has chosen our new Prime Minister. A new chapter of our politics is about to unfold. I wonder how it will support our budding transition.
I reach the tow path and walk till 8 in the evening. I notice that the sun is going down in front of me and enjoy realising that I will never again have difficulty in remembering where the sun sets, as I am waling west on what I think has to be one of my favourite days of this journey. We have left behind the dismal industry of yesterday, the busily ugly making of the landscape for our comfort, and entered stretches that are a celebration of nature.
From the brightly coloured barges, to the nesting pairs of water fowl, the delicately pink apple blossom and the chestnut flowers, and the fiercely protected chicks of the Canada geese, the canalised river is pure delight from Waltham to Hertford. No, I must warn you about the go kart stadium at Royden whose burnt oil fumes are carried on the air long after the noise made by the adrenaline junkies in the play machines has diminished. It is a blemish, but the sight of two Canada geese coming into land like two aeroplanes, feet first, skimming the surface for some metres before slowing gradually and starting to glide is a sight to soothe sore eyes, only bettered by shortly after seeing two swans also coming into land; extending huge white wings and swooping down over the water, gliding lower, feet extended, water surfing, and then effortlessly gliding across the surface of the river as if no energy had been expended at all; magnificent.
My heart is full; gratitude and love for the continuation of nature in all its glory despite our feeble efforts to despoil it in our mistaken surmise that we need to have control over our environment.
I arrive in Hertford and feel immediately comfortable; it is an ancient market town; absolutely my favourite sort of settlements – not too big not too small, a river running through it, and a castle. The buildings are huddled close together and create a sense of cosiness. The perfect ending to a perfect day.